A lot of people, when asked what they would do differently if they could go back in time, insist “I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Not Brandon Lee.
In 1993, a 16-year-old boy going by that name enrolled in a Scottish secondary school called Bearsden Academy, located in a tony suburb of Glasgow. He claimed to have grown up in Canada, the son of a peripatetic opera singer who had been killed in an auto accident. His academic gifts dazzled, even if his social skills didn’t impress so much. With his precocious intellect, Lee appeared well on his way to achieving his stated goal of getting into medical school.
It took more than a year for the truth to come out: “Brandon Lee” was a fiction. Lee was actually Brian MacKinnon, a 32-year-old former Bearsden pupil who had returned to the school in the guise of a teenager. The strange tale is told in My Old School, a new documentary directed by Jono McLeod and featuring Scottish actor Alan Cumming as Lee. The Magnolia Pictures release is now playing in select cities.
“One of the most incredible stories of the last 30 years,” McLeod says. And he should know. He was a student at Bearsden back when Lee showed up out of the blue.
“He looked older than us, that’s for sure,” McLeod remembers, but says he and his fellow students weren’t inclined to question what their elsewhere set in stone. “We were told by our homeroom teacher that this new kid had arrived from Canada, here he is at 16, so we bought that. And she’d been told [that] by her superiors… So, yeah, we just kind of went with it. And there were always kids at school who looked a little bit older than the other kids.”
Brandon Lee sported curly hair, owlish spectacles and a diffident manner. At first, he didn’t exactly fit in.
“This was a classic geek who had arrived with us. He wasn’t one of the cool kids,” McLeod remembers. “But then over the course of the next year, he somehow managed to work his way through that social strata of high school life and really turn things around.”
Brandon invited classmates over to his flat, where they were served tea and snacks by a woman Lee said was his grandmother. Later, it was revealed she was, in fact, his mother, who had not died in an accident after all. The revelation of Lee’s identity attracted huge attention in the UK and among those who followed the news was Cumming, the Tony-winning and Emmy-nominated actor who was born in Aberfeldy, Scotland.
“When it all happened in the early 90s, it was such a big story. I knew about it and was sort of fascinated by it… just the sheer audacity of it,” Cumming says. “It’s an interesting thing about identity and stuff that we’re dealing with in our culture now that, if you want to be perceived somehow and if you believe enough in your own identity, then you go out into the world asking for that and it will be given back to you, and that’s what happened to him.”
Decades ago, Cumming was attached to play Lee in a film he was going to direct, but the project fell apart.
“I was really sort of devastated,” Cumming recalls. “You don’t normally get the chance to revisit something like this, with Jono bringing me this character again. I hadn’t quite realized how much it meant to me, how much sort of unfinished business there was.”
There’s a curious parallel between actor and subject—Cumming going back in time, as it were, to attend to that unfinished business, just as Lee had done. In My Old School Cumming sits at a desk in a classroom, looks directly into camera and lip-syncs lines from an audio interview Lee granted to McLeod.
“It was a really fascinating exercise,” Cumming says of lip-synching. But it wasn’t easy. On set, McLeod’s cameras rolled while the words that Cumming needed to lip-synch resounded through a loudspeaker.
“It would just be like that thing when you do ADR and it goes, beep, beep, beep, and then the [recording] starts. And then we would just keep it going and going and going until we both felt we’d got it,” Cumming says. “It was kind of like a cult indoctrination because people [on set] just kept hearing these same messages again and again and again and again and again. And, also, it was freezing cold because we were in December . Because of Covid, all the windows and doors of this school in Glasgow had to be open.”
Cumming laughs, “We had temperature deprivation and these repeated messages. It was really like a cult.”
McLeod uses animation to tell a significant part of the story, including the manner in which Brandon’s hoax ultimately unraveled (his true identity came out after he embarked on an ill-advised holiday abroad with former classmates). The colorful animation style hearkens back to an MTV character popular in the very era when Brandon was pulling off his imposture.
“Brandon arrives with big curly hair, glasses, a North American accent and quite monotonous voice. hes Daria–really a total icon of ’90s animation,” McLeod says. There were additional animation reference points, including The Archies and Scooby-Doo. Like the plots in Scooby-Doo“Brandon would have gotten away with it, if it wasn’t for those pesky kids.”
Wild Child Animation, based in Sterling, Scotland, handled the work for My Old School.
“Because it’s a really great complex plot and there’s a lot of back and forth, I wanted to help people get their heads around exactly what was happening,” McLeod explains. “And the simplest way to do that was through a really nice, clean, simple animation. Wild Child did a fantastic job.”
My Old School fits, in a sense, with recent films and series that swivel around tricksters, posers, imposters, and swindlers. The Dropout and Inventing Anna put a fictional spin on true-life tales, while documentaries The Tinder Swindler and Bath Vegan expose a couple of other world-class phonies. The protagonists in those stories sought lucre or fame, but Brandon Lee was motivated by something less venal. As an adult, his dream of becoming a doctor had gone off the rails; he saw going back to high school as the do-over he needed to return to med school.
McLeod and a number of other classmates of Brandon’s appear in the film, sharing somewhat conflicting recollections of those events from three decades ago. Several speak movingly of ways Lee helped them when they were callow youths—assisting them with homework, introducing them to music that broadened their minds, etc. Lee may have been misguided, but he wasn’t necessarily a scoundrel.
“I always saw this as a high school movie, and Brandon definitely did have a positive impact on a number of the kids,” McLeod says. “That was something I just wanted to reflect and show that it wasn’t all nefarious. It was good and bad. I didn’t want to tie things up in a bow at the end of this film. I wanted people to leave talking about it and discussing it and trying to figure out whose side they’re on.”
My Old School premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and went on to play other festivals around the world, including ones in Poland, Croatia, Greece, Belgium and Finland.
“I really love the movie,” Cumming says. “I’m so excited to be a part of it because I think it deals with subjects that I really find fascinating, like memory. I guess, having written a few memoirs, I’m fascinated by how an incident can be perceived so many different ways and also how it can change in your memory the older you get, the more far away you are from it… This story is now being told by all these people who were there at the time, but of course, you realize they have very different memories of it.”